written by Michael McKiernan
published in Law Times
A crash course in neuroscience can dramatically improve family lawyers’ relationships with their clients, according to a Toronto practitioner.
Nathalie Boutet, a mediation and collaborative partner at Basman Smith LLP and founder of the Neuro Family Law Institute, says lawyers have been slow to capitalize on the ever-developing area of brain research.
“Lawyers don’t think it’s their job to know about the workings of the client and their brain,” says Boutet.
“They think it’s their job to know about the law, but it’s impossible to separate the law from the people who are in the legal system. Lawyers are a little bit reticent to get in when there are strong emotions, and I’m not asking that we become therapists. I’m asking that we become aware of what is going on for our clients so we can intervene gently and powerfully.”
At the recent Neuro Family Law Conference in Toronto, Boutet and professional coach Linda Page told a room full of lawyers it’s hard to appreciate how difficult the family law process can be for clients.
“For them, it’s like being in a burning house with no escape,” said Boutet. “They are trapped in our system. The way their brains work has serious implications for them, their kids, and their families. We are not taught that in law school.”
Boutet said brains build up a shorthand for interactions with people and places based on stored memories of previous encounters that she calls brain patterns.
For evolutionary reasons, negative interactions are more likely to get stored so people are ready to respond when they sense danger. After years of negative interactions with a former partner, that means even apparently minor complaints can trigger emotions, according to Boutet.
“How many of you have had a client who says,’ Did you see the way he looked at me?’ That’s real for them. We can’t say there was no look or don’t worry about it. It’s their experience, and we can’t trivialize what triggers them. It means nothing to us because we don’t have the brain patterns associated with that look.”
Lawyers should be aware, she said, of the effect the heightened emotions involved when clients split from partners can have on their thinking.
“Our ability to think and reason diminishes when we are triggered,” she noted. “Just think of how many times your clients are triggered, and you’re asking them to make complex decisions. Should you guys have spousal support with tax or without tax? Should you sign an interim agreement? Should you choose a collaborative lawyer? It’s endless.”
As a result, according to Boutet, family lawyers should encourage clients to take notes during meetings and have them repeat back the subjects discussed in order to make sure they absorb the information and understand the consequences of any decision.
“You know your client is not going to retain a thing you say at your first meeting, so you might send them a confirming letter,” said Boutet.
The process can also leave many clients on a short fuse. Boutet recalled one of hers, a former government employee who was the epitome of calm and respect in meetings with her. But during a spousal support negotiation, the man exploded in rage after his wife wrote down her opening offer. He lifted himself up on the chair and onto the table, went red in the face, and said, “This is ridiculous, I’m leaving,” said Boutet.
Page, meanwhile, led participants through the SCARF model that divides most human social experiences into five broad categories: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.
Threats to any one will elicit an automatic emotional response, Page said, but understanding which of the five categories is most important to the client can help a lawyer prepare. In the case of Boutet’s government worker, the perceived unfairness of his wife’s offer triggered him.
A way to tackle the problem in advance is desensitization or “trying something over and over,” said Page.
“There’s a lot of work we can do with our clients ahead of time to say, ‘How are you going to feel when this option is presented?’” said Boutet.
Another technique involves reframing the situation.
“If you see a picture of people coming out of a church crying, the first reaction is they’re in grief,” said Page. “If you reframe it and say the context is at a wedding. It changes things. Reframing can help calm the limbic system.”
Simply encouraging clients to think about what’s likely to trigger them can actually help limit the emotional response, according to Page.
“If you catch yourself getting angry, then wait a minute and take a breath,” she said. “It gives you the ability to switch from intuition to where we do our reasoning,” she added.